Leadership and the constellation

By Charlotte Finlay

The time for heroes in leadership is over.

Traditionally, the leadership literature landscape has heavily featured a dominant individual perspective: the hero leader figure. Even today, the understanding of leadership often ends up with a blurred distinction between hero and leader as leadership is still often perceived as an individual level phenomenon. But the time for heroes has been fading away and a new understanding of leadership is emerging. Leadership mustn’t be confused with a leader or set of leaders. Indeed, the two are very different. When we consider leadership, a leader may spring to our minds, yet leadership will rarely play out solely on an individual level; rather leadership is a complex and dynamic process.

This leads us to the question; how should we view leadership today? Let me introduce a new understanding of the phenomena to consider. Leadership is a collective, social process, best practiced in a constellation. In this context, the term constellation describes a group of leaders from the public, private, and third sectors of society to achieve a future goal. In Northern Ireland this plurality of leaders is needed given the complex challenges we face, but this leadership is also needed beyond Northern Ireland and across the globe.

I have been privileged to witness this leadership constellation in action over the last eight months, while observing and taking part in the CDPB’s Fellowship Programme, as part of my PhD research into cross-sectoral leadership. The programme brings leaders across Northern Ireland together, representing the different sectors of society, with leaders from business, politics, and the community and voluntary sector. These leaders have come together to work collectively, across sectors, to create change in Northern Ireland. The programme is underpinned by the spirit of possibility, which is what I have found to be true in watching collective leadership unfold over the last eight months.

In a recent interview one of the leaders shared their thoughts on leading with those from different sectors, and they posed these questions,

What is in the interest of the person opposite me? And is there a space that we can reach in between? Or instead of going off in parallel lines, can we create a perpendicular moment where we come together further down the line?

Leadership is a collective, social process and is therefore highly relational. Social Capital Theory is about the value of social networks. Put simply, it refers to the connections and the interactions between people. And these networks, connections, and interactions matter. Research tells us that good, strong Social Capital has enormous benefits on society, and how we fill the space that exists between us determines the strength of the Social Capital we build. Every day, we will experience leadership gaps. Where do these gaps exist? They exist between us as leaders and how we fill those gaps determines the strength of the Social Capital we build.

So, how do we avoid going off in parallel lines? How can we narrow the gap, reaching into the space between? Based on what I have observed through the Fellowship Programme this year, we narrow the gap by all of us showing up at the leadership table, choosing to participate in the constellation, and building relationships across sectors.

Collaborating well and solving complex societal problems requires a constellation of leaders, working together within a social process. To finish, I love this quote from Warren Bennis almost thirty years ago, who summarised this need for leadership and the constellation when he wrote:

None of us is as smart as all of us. In a society as complex and technologically sophisticated as ours, the most urgent projects require the coordinated contributions of many talented people. The richer the mix of people, the more likely that new connections will be made. We must recognise a new paradigm: not great leaders alone but great leaders who exist in a fertile relationship with a Great Group (Bennis, 1997, P. 202).

More is still to be discovered when it comes to cross-sectoral leadership, yet one thing remains true in the pursuit of a better leadership for the future, which encapsulates the reason for the Fellowship Programme; that “We came here to do something, together” (Godin, 2023).

To conclude, as leaders, let’s remember leadership is not found in leaders alone, but is found in a process of learning with others, for the greater good of society. Let’s consider leadership and the constellation. For in narrowing the gap, in this perpendicular moment, there lies a spirit of possibility for leadership today, tomorrow, and for the future.

Charlotte Finlay is a PhD candidate at Ulster University



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Fellowship 2023/24 Graduation

On Thursday 14th April, we were honoured to join our 2023/24 Fellows at Hillsborough Castle for their graduation ceremony.

On Thursday 14th April, we were honoured to join our 2023/24 Fellows at Hillsborough Castle for their graduation ceremony.

It was an evening of celebration, as we looked back on the Fellows’ meaningful and insightful contributions over the last year. It was heartwarming to see so many close relationships and connections made throughout the Fellowship which will continue to thrive in the future.

The CDPB team would like to personally congratulate all of the Fellows. We are humbled and inspired by your commitment to making change and we cannot wait to see the impact you will continue to make for all in Northern Ireland.


The Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London inspiring culture and international collaboration

The Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow is set to host an innovative seminar on “Collecting, Curating, Conservation and Collaboration” in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London.

This landmark event, organised by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building’s Cultural Diplomacy Programme and the Polish Cultural Institute in London, supported by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, under the Inspiring Culture programme, will bring together over seventy participants from various cultural institutions, including delegates from China and Ireland.

The V&A seminar is a part of the five-day study trip and will provide a unique platform for cultural exchange and knowledge-sharing, featuring visits to major Polish institutions and museums in Krakow and Warsaw. Participants will engage in insightful meetings with curators, artists, and designers, fostering meaningful dialogue and collaboration within the global cultural community.

Led by a team from across the V&A, the seminar at the Wawel Royal Castle will offer a comprehensive overview of the museum’s working practices and future ambitions. Attendees can expect to gain valuable insights into the lifecycle of museum objects, with a focus on 4 Cs: Collecting, Curating, Conservation and Collaboration. Additionally, the programme will highlight the V&A’s forthcoming major expansion in East London, with V&A East. V&A East is dedicated to creative opportunity and its power to bring change. Two free cultural destinations – V&A East Storehouse and Museum – will open on East Bank in 2025.

Professor Andrzej Betlej, Director of Wawel Royal Castle said:

“This seminar represents a significant milestone in fostering international collaboration and knowledge exchange within the cultural sector. We are thrilled to partner with the V&A and other esteemed organisations to facilitate meaningful discussions and inspire new ideas that will shape the future of museums and cultural institutions worldwide.”

Through a combination of presentations, talks, and group activities, participants will have the opportunity to delve into the latest thinking in museum practice, explore innovative approaches to working with new and non-traditional objects and media, as well as learning about the power of collaborations with artists, creative practitioners, and audiences.

The V&A study visit is supported by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, under the Inspiring Culture programme. It has been developed in partnership between the Polish Cultural Institute in London, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building’s Cultural Diplomacy Programme.

Supported by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, under the Inspiring Culture programme

Leadership and integrity

By Dominic O’Reilly, Fellow Class of 2021

I was reminded of the etymology of the word integrity when I discussed flooding in Downpatrick, County Down, with my dad in November of last year. It comes from the Latin integrum, which means to stay intact, or remain whole.

Questions were swirling over how small, family run businesses who were affected by the flooding would survive. Even if the flood water had been drained, the structural integrity of the building and roads surrounding may have been affected. They wouldn’t be able to hold together, or hold their own weight, without breaking.

I thought about applying the same criteria to people, and to leaders. Our integrity is tested in times of difficulty and challenge, in times of flooding. Our ability to withstand the internal and external pressures without buckling is an accurate measurement of our mettle.

But how often do we think about integrity, about how we would remain intact? It would be foolish for those in leadership positions to take a wait and see approach. To only realise just how resilient their integrity is when tested. We often see that leaders (whether in business, politics, or civic society) who do take this approach buckle, unable to withstand pressure when tested; so-called great leaders no longer.

This cycle of leadership is often taken as an inevitable part of life. But I believe that those who assume a leadership role should be continuously assessing their integrity: their ability to withstand. This requires a considerable level of introspection and self-awareness, and is often measured through our interactions with others. Integrity is found in how we respond to challenging conversations, in our desire to grow, and in the criticism which we may face.

Leaders should not call all the shots or make all the decisions themselves, however. The weight of the world does not rest solely on their shoulders. Leaders should not be isolated or lonely, but rather help others develop and foster leadership in others. Of course, there will be moments when a leader must make a decision for themselves, but in those challenging times we find that our leadership skills are strengthened as we go through a period of soul-searching.

Just as the pilgrim Dante was helped by Virgil in his quest through hell, a structurally sound leader needs the help of others. Virgil acted not only as a guide, but also as a teacher, a voice of reason, and at times, a critic.

In connecting with our community, in depending on them for help and guidance, we become better leaders. We should find inspiration in previous leadership, learning from their mistakes, and continue to teach the next generation. Perhaps this is the greatest test of any leader’s integrity: knowing when to pass the mantle on.

In passing on their own knowledge, a leader leaves the stage with their integrity intact. And they will be held in high regard by future generations. Just as Dante viewed Virgil. Just as I view my dad.

If we can learn from those who guide us, and the difficulties we face – whether they be floods, a political party in decline, or a school struggling to budget – we too can pass through hell like Dante, and emerge with our integrity intact: “pure and disposed to mount unto the stars.”

By Dominic O’Reilly, Fellow Class of 2021


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Cultural Diplomacy and the Art of Soft Power seminar proudly hosted by CDPB

As part of Imagine! Belfast, CDPB proudly hosted the seminar Cultural Diplomacy and the Art of Soft Power on March 21st at Black Box theatre in the heart of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.

We were thrilled to be joined by keynote speaker Evgeniya Ravtsova, International Programmes Manager at Victoria and Albert Museum, whose speech on the museum’s unique history and role in cultural diplomacy and exchange, as well as the art of soft power, was riveting.
Our panel discussion was equally insightful, covering topics such as: future opportunities for cultural diplomacy; the influence of narratives of identity in cultural diplomacy; and, Ireland and Northern Ireland’s cultural diplomacy initiatives.

Thanks are owed to our brilliant panellists: Sheena Barrett, Head of Research and Learning at the Irish Museum of Modern Art; Dr. Kim-Marie Spence, Lecturer in Arts Management and Cultural Policy at Queen’s University Belfast; and Richard Williams, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Screen.

We would also like to thank Black Box and Imagine! Belfast for their help in hosting and facilitating such a successful event.


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John Smith Trust Belarusian Fellows visit London

In March, the CDPB team were honoured to work with the John Smith Trust’s Belarusian Fellows, facilitating a residential trip to London.

The John Smith Trust offers individuals from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia working in sustainability, governance, and diversity, a fellowship programme which includes giving Fellows valuable insight into the workings of UK institutions, leadership development, and a residential trip to London.

The Belarusian Fellows travelled to London in March for a jam-packed schedule of events, which CDPB helped to facilitate.
The week included a meeting with the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Affairs, Lord Cameron; a meeting with CDPB Fellowship alumnus Conleth Burns who gave an overview of his work at More in Common and research into UK policy concerns; a visit to the Guildhall, meeting with Alderman Professor Emma Edhem; a trip to Oxford to meet for a session on Systems Thinking with Professor Harvey Maylor from Säid Business School; and a day in Parliament featuring a trip to PMQs and a open conversation hosted by CDPB Emeritus Chairman, Lord Alderdice.

Thank you to all involved in the fabulous and constructive week, as well as the wider fellowship programme, and good luck to the Fellows in their future endeavours.


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CDPB announces its blog series Leadership And

In this first blog we introduce the series Leadership And, answering why robust guidance for leadership in 2024 is more important than ever.

Leaders push forward in times of complexity

We find ourselves in a cultural moment of complexity and uncertainty as domestic and global challenges continue to mount with no end in sight, four of which stand out. First, it is a critical year for climate change as TIME has named 2024 the year for exponential climate action.

Second, the increase of conflict worldwide is unavoidable, with conflict prevention expert Paul Stares stating, “the trend toward less armed conflict around the world is now moving in the opposite direction.” Whether it is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza, leadership is required more than ever.

Another precarious challenge is the economy. Economists anticipate the global economy to weaken in 2024, and accompanied with a cost of living crisis at home threatening the most vulnerable in society, the decisions made by our leaders from across society – not just in parliamentary chambers and executive tables – will echo for generations to come.

Finally, democracy itself appears to be in crisis. This year has been dubbed the year of voting, with more than two billion people around the world heading to the polls in 2024. Quite simply it is the biggest election year in history. And yet, democracy has never felt so fragile; it seems to be on the ballot itself. Research from Our World in Data recently published statistics that suggest democracy is backsliding at a substantial rate. Moreover, published data shows that the number of democratic states worldwide has fallen, fewer people are living in democracies, and people have fewer democratic rights.

In light of these challenges, leaders are being scrutinised more than ever as their character and competency are consistently called into question from various corners of society. According to research from Jon Stokes and Sue Dopson at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, trust in leadership is at an all-time low and leaders must prove themselves in order to gain respect.

This is the moment for leaders to step up and not bend the knee to the challenges facing all of us. In these uncertain times, healthy and constructive leadership must be parsed out to steer us to calmer waters and push forward. We need pioneering leaders that actively take steps towards a better future through addressing the issues of the present through innovation and cooperation.

The aim of Leadership And

At the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building (CDPB), we believe in eco-leadership: leadership that focuses on the collective, that does not withhold knowledge, and instead chooses to empower communities by encouraging information sharing. Research by Dopson and Stokes sums it up perfectly: “Leadership is a conversation, a way of talking about things with people, at all levels, within and beyond.” We do not hope with this series to prescribe answers. Rather we aim to facilitate creative thinking within a broader audience. Leadership is about equipping a collective to seek innovative solutions to complex problems. By providing in-depth leadership guidance from experts, CDPB hopes to develop leaders’ capacity and foster a positive culture of connectedness in which we all can work together to solve issues and lead better.

Over the next few months, the Leadership And series will curate adept opinions on various facets of leadership, creating an accessible, intertwined database of lived experience and science from leaders from across the globe. We will look at topics such as leadership and integrity, leadership and dignity, and leadership and complexity. In our commitment to diversity of opinion, we will invite friends and associates of CDPB who possess an extensive track record of leadership to join the series as a guest writer and share their insights.

Leadership is not prescriptive and by examining many opinions we open ourselves up to new creative forms of thinking.

We look forward to having you on this journey with us.

The CDPB team


“Chief Economists Outlook: January 2024.” World Economic Forum, 15 Jan. 2024.

“Countries That Are Democracies and Autocracies.” Our World in Data.

“Electoral Democracy Index.” Our World in Data.

Herre, Bastian. “The World Has Recently Become Less Democratic.” Our World in Data, 6 Sept. 2022.

“People Living in Democracies and Autocracies.” Our World in Data.

Ray, Siladitya. “2024 Is the Biggest Election Year in History—Here Are the Countries Going to the Polls This Year.” Forbes, 3 Jan. 2024.

Stares, Paul. “Conflicts to Watch in 2024.” Council on Foreign Relations, 4 Jan. 2024.

Stokes, J., and S. Dopson. “From Ego to Eco, Leadership for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” (2020).

Tubiana, Laurence, and Catherine McKenna. “2024 Must Be the Year for Exponential Climate Action.” TIME, 16 Jan. 2024.


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Fellowship Programme session at FinTrU

Our latest Fellowship Programme session was hosted by FinTrU on February 22.

We are grateful to deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Hilary Benn MP, and the US Consul General James Applegate for contributing to the morning’s events. We were all thrilled to have them join us and hear their inspiring words.

Fellows were also treated to an insightful seminar and discussion from Fellowship Programme partner Ulster Carpets on adapting and leading in an evolving global market.

Many thanks must also go to FinTrU CEO and advisory board member Darragh McCarthy for leading an engaging and entertaining session on entrepreneurship as well as hosting the session.

The day was rounded off by presentations by our Fellows on their Design Thinking projects that have been carried out throughout the duration of the 2023/24 programme. Our Fellows presented on education, engaging young people in democracy, and climate action in the local community.


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Fellows travel to Dublin for residential

Following on from our Fellowship Programme session in December with Bauer Media NI, Newtownards, our Fellows travelled down to Dublin for the next instalment of the 2023/24 programme.

The Fellows were treated to a fascinating series of discussions focusing on leadership in reconciliation and the arts, including members from the Houses of the Oireachtas, The Irish Times, Royal Irish Academy, Irish Museum of Modern Arts, Citi Bank, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ciarán Ó Cuinn, and Tim O’Connor.

We would like to offer our thanks to our Fellows for a fantastic and constructive residential and to our colleagues and hosts for their support and hospitality.


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TEDxStormont returns for its 11th year to a packed audience

TEDxStormont returned for another successful year in January with many inspiring and insightful talks on this year’s theme of ‘Restore’.

Over 175 people joined us in the Great Hall, Stormont, on January 20 to discover innovative ideas, hear inspiring stories, and have thought-provoking discussions on how to rejuvenate our world, revive our communities, and rekindle hope for a sustainable future.

We were honoured to be joined by experts from a wide variety of fields who empowered us to restore the balance in our lives and the wider world. A huge thank you to our MC, Sarah Travers, and all our speakers: Alex Kane, Celtic Psalms, Ed Lindsay, Heidi McIlvenny, Jamie Duffy, Jane Shaw, John Martin, Justin Lowry, Kiran Young Wimberly, Matthew Taylor, Michael Boyd, Michael O’Sullivan, Paula Kennedy Garcia, Romav Ali, Sinead Sharkey-Steenson, and Susan Lagdon.

We would also like to extend our thanks to Camlin Group, BiOPAX Ltd, Coca-Cola HBC Ireland and Northern Ireland, and our production partners Ulster Screen Academy, for their vital support of TEDxStormont 2024. Thank you also to Brown O’Connor Communications, Bespoke Communications, Focus Audio Visual, Northern Ireland Assembly staff and Kelvin Boyes for their support and help on the day for bringing together a broad range of ideas and perspectives.


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